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Rescued: Chilean miners taste freedom at last

By Marc Burleigh

SAN JOSE MINE, Wednesday 13 October 2010 (AFP) - The first of 33 miners trapped deep underground in Chile for a record 10 weeks triumphantly tasted freedom on Wednesday, triggering nationwide celebrations and media mayhem.

A powerful light danced across the chilly night sky and hand-held horns blared when 31-year-old Florencio Avalos stepped out of a special steel cage, breathing fresh air into his lungs for the first time in 69 days.

He immediately hugged his seven-year-old son, his wife Monica, then Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and other officials before being taken to hospital for medical tests.

A second miner, Mario Sepulveda, 40, soon followed, admitting: "I have been with God and with the devil. I fought between the two. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."

Sepulveda delighted the crowds by producing rocks as ironic gifts from a sack before leading the congregation of officials, relatives and rescuers in an impromptu, celebratory chant.

A landmark operation saw a miner emerge every hour as the rescue capsule decked out in the Chile's national colors -- red, white and blue -- climbed and descended 622 meters (2,041 feet), nearly the height of two Eiffel Towers.

Among the first half-dozen out were Carlos Mamani, a 23-year-old Bolivian who was the only person in the group not from Chile, and Jimmy Sanchez, who at 19 was the youngest of the trapped men.

Their rescue was the culmination of a record-breaking two-month drama, during which the 33 men awaited rescue at the bottom of the dark, dank mine with the world captivated by their daily hopes and fears.

Pinera said the rescue operation was "without comparison in the history of humanity" and that the entire country had learned from the miners "the value of faith and of hope, the value of comradeship and solidarity."

Hundreds of relatives, who maintained an anxious vigil in a makeshift tent city that has sprung up at the remote gold and copper mine in the northern Chile desert, cheered and wept at each escape.

The family of Avalos watched the moment he stepped free on live television, rising and clapping with tears in their eyes.

His father Alfonso raised his arms in triumph before hugging his wife, his face creased with emotion as he exclaimed: "It's a huge joy. I'm so happy."

But then the hundreds of journalists covering the moment crowded around them, jostling so forcefully to get an interview they toppled the tent and trampled each other.

The family, caught between relief and sudden fear, clung to each other in the media storm and retreated to the safety of a Red Cross-run cafeteria.

The media scrum then moved on to crowd the family of the following miners. A forest of cameras and lights were pointed at the tent where Mamani's relatives were located.

The miners have survived deep underground longer than anyone before them after being trapped on August 5 when the upper galleries of the mine collapsed.

For 17 days they were all but given up for dead, before a drill probe found them and they were able to attach a note to it, announcing the extraordinary news that they were all alive and well.

They had survived by strictly rationing their food and water, and had found refuge in an emergency shelter.

Now, after a multi-million-dollar operation to drill down a rescue shaft, they are being brought out of the mine one by one in a specially-designed narrow steel cage, dubbed Phoenix to symbolize their rebirth.

The operation, which sees each miner equipped with oxygen and communications gear as well as dark glasses to shield their vulnerable eyes, was not expected to be complete before Thursday.

Each miner stepping out of the cage was being greeted by up to three family members and waiting doctors before being flown to a regional hospital for days of check-ups.

Chilean officials have worked feverishly to sustain the nation's heroes during their long wait for rescue -- which was initially feared would not be before Christmas.

Food, water and means of entertainment were dropped down to them through probe holes to help them survive the prolonged captivity in hot, dank conditions that they described as "hell."

Many of the men suffered skin conditions due to the humidity, while others have chest infections and blood pressure problems.

But the miners, who dubbed themselves "the 33," have formed a closely-knit group. They were said to have squabbled over who should be the last to leave, with many wanting to see their comrades winched to safety ahead of them.

As the miners finally make it to the surface, they leave behind dark isolation for a blaze of publicity normally reserved for movie stars or sporting heroes.

Chilean media reports suggest the men are anticipating lucrative book and film deals that may limit what they end up saying to the waiting news media.

Related stories:
Chile's joy spreads to the world as all 33 miners saved
Jubilation as last miner rescued in Chile
Rescued Chilean miners are healthy, with exceptions
Emotional Chile miners' rescue in final stages
Cheers and tears as first miners emerge in Chile
Who are these heroic Chile miners?
Media mayhem mars family's joy at Chile mine rescue
World is captive audience for Chile mine rescue
Chronology of the Chile mine disaster (UPDATED)
Concern for psychological welfare when Chile miners emerge
First Chile miner back on surface after 10-week ordeal
First Chile miners set for Tuesday rescue
Hopes and fears as Chile miners prepare for rescue

Photo story:
Seeing light again

MySinchew 2010.10.13


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